A New Experience: Military Learjet Maintenance

Changing maintenance procedures from civilian to Air Force mechanics

The 2005 Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) announcement to shut down flying operations at the Fargo-based North Dakota Air National Guard (NDANG) fell with a thud. With an unsurpassed safety record (more than 30 years and 145,000 flight hours in fighters without an accident) and two Hughes Trophies in the F-4 Phantom and F-16 Falcon under their belts, a melancholy mood permeated the base as the maintainers absorbed the news.

Also known as the Happy Hooligans, the 119th Wing has received major Air Force awards for maintenance, including the USAF Daedalian Maintenance Trophy. Sure, there was the C-27J Spartan on a distant horizon, but without a means of retaining personnel and their skills, a Herculean effort to rebuild maintenance skills would await them when the time came. Old talent would move to other jobs, perhaps outside their unit, and new talent would have no one to mentor them.

Bridge mission: C-21

It was a bleak picture until the announcement they’d be getting the C-21 to work on during the five-or-so-year interim period — they called it a “bridge” mission. “A C-21? What is a C-21?”

They shortly learned the C-21, an off-the-shelf Learjet 35A, had always been maintained by civilian mechanics. There were no Air Force tech schools for it, no Air Force training standards for it, and tech data amounted to Learjet maintenance manuals. They felt like the Pekingese that caught the car.

The news of the airplane’s arrival surprised everyone from the Support Program Office (SPO) at Tinker AFB, OK, down to the flight line crew chiefs. The NDANG shortly learned the airplanes, victims of budget cutbacks, were being diverted from a trip to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, for storage; the aircraft were being saved to fly another day.

Military maintenance program

At Fargo, and later at Hartford, CT, and Battle Creek, MI, training and management personnel determined how to create a military maintenance program from scratch. There were no examples to draw from; while the Air Force had moved military maintenance programs over to civilian contracting on many occasions, no one could remember such a program moving the other direction. About the only guidance was in the form of general Air Force regulations saying if it was FAA-certified, then the unit would have to maintain it to FAA standards. From this tidbit the NDANG went about the business of developing the C-21’s military maintenance program.

Essentially, program development required maintenance of the aircraft according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements using Air Force processes. As an example, if the FAA requires a 24-month check of the aircraft pitot-static system, the job would be accomplished by Air Force technicians qualified to Air Force pitot-static system check standards. A sheet metal repair would be accomplished by a technician trained to Air Force standards, but using methods and technical data approved by the FAA. And so it went.

Learjet training

To gain an understanding of the C-21 systems, the NDANG contracted with a civilian Learjet training school to give general maintenance training to full-time technicians. A training aircraft was flown in from Wright-Patterson AFB for hands-on familiarization. From this training, technicians gained a basic understanding of the aircraft and its systems.

Avionics people learned civilian radios and equipment. Crew chiefs learned about pre-flights. Engine, hydraulic, fuel, and other specialists homed in on their specialty areas. Jobs started to become defined and organization began to take shape across the maintenance group.

As the aircraft began to show up in early 2007, the technicians observed temporary CLS personnel as they performed jobs; later CLS personnel observed as we reversed roles with them. By July 2007 Fargo was confident enough to declare a take-over of maintenance on Sept. 1, a full month before the scheduled handover date of Oct. 1.

The Air Force process

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